SA labour: tension, turmoil — and some hope

Posted on April 28, 2018


The South African Federation of trade Unions (Saftu) can no longer be dismissed as a “flash in the pan” and as “just another mushroom” destined for eventual oblivion. The mass turnouts on the protest strike on Wednesday in major centres around the country were a clear sign that Saftu has arrived — and is probably here to stay.

And, if anything, the sniping from the sidelines by Cosatu and the Federation of Unions (Fedusa) in the run-up to the strike benefited Saftu. The newest federation obviously capitalised on the fact that many workers around the country are worried, angry and, in some cases, disillusioned with the older federations and union leaderships.

They are worried about the loss of jobs and the prevailing insecurity in the labour market, especially among the poorer paid. And they are angry that wages have not kept pace with the rising cost of living. The recent 1% increase in value added tax (VAT) is also blamed on the pillage of state resources under the watch of the present government has also caused resentment.

Cosatu, as a member of the governing alliance, is a particular target of this resentment. However, Fedusa and the National Council of Trade Union (Nactu) having agreed, together with Cosatu, government and business on the announced a R3 500 a month minimum wage are also targetted.

This is not only because the agreement reached was actually on an hourly rate of R20 for workers other than those in farm or domestic employ or on works programmes. The hourly rates for the latter three categories were agreed to be R18, R15 and R11, with a clause to allow them to “catch up” to the R20. Only workers employed full time for a month would be paid R3 500.

However, it is true that perhaps as many as 6 million workers in full time employment do not yet earn even R3 500. But the lowest paid workers almost certainly hoped for more, even much more. This hope was partly inspired by the R12 500 a month “living wage” demanded by the miners of Marikana in 2012. But it was also bolstered by the fact that Cosatu, more than two years ago, was pressing for at least R4 500.

The apparent climbdown by the labour representatives at the National Economic Development and Labour Council (Nedlac) in accepting pay rates ranging from R11 to R20 an hour made it easy for them to be labelled sell-outs. They were clearly on the back foot in what turned out to be one of the most tumultuous weeks in recent labour history. It was a week that raised several important political, financial and ethical questions.

Not only was there the mass protest about the minimum wage and the related — proposed — amendments to the labour laws, there was also the ongoing national bus strike and the PSA (Public Servants Association) taking on the Public Investment Corporation (PIC) over the non disclosure of some of what seem to be questionable investments of government employee pension money.

The Government Employees Pension Fund (GEPF), through its asset manager, the PIC, owns a large quantity of government bonds, making it probably impossible for the government to exert pressure on the GEPF or the PSA should either (or both) resolve to withdraw the management of the biggest pension fund in Africa from the government owned PIC. Government would still have to underwrite this defined benefit fund.

What the row with the PIC highlighted was the lack of consultation by money managers with those who actually own the money they manage. This was underlined by the accusations that the labour contingent at Nedlac made decisions on behalf of hundreds of thousands of members without first canvassing their opinions.

Saftu has raised this issue, but it extends beyond Nedlac and applies to the entire labour movement, including unions affiliated to Saftu. It is the abuse of the concept of democratic centralism, that implies that all matters that concern any group should be discussed openly and decisions taken, with the majority carrying the day.

In cases where this system properly applies, and representatives are elected to carry out specific functions, they should, at all times, be answerable to, and recallable by, their constituencies. In other words, other than in exceptional circumstances, elected leaders should not take decisions on behalf of the members, without consulting and carrying out the wishes of those members. Even in exceptional circumstances, they should still, ultimately, be answerable to their constituencies.

Whatever happens over coming weeks and months, it seems likely that more questions will be raised and the tensions in the labour movement will continue. However, it is worth noting that the five unions involved in the bus strike negotiations represent all four federations — and presented a united front.